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Five Ways Digital Badges Can Influence Learning

—Co-written with Andrea Thomas | Technology Writer, Purdue University—

Badges can be used to supplement more traditional credits so that adult students are recognized for their competencies as well as their knowledge.
Badges can be used to supplement more traditional credits so that adult students are recognized for their competencies as well as their knowledge.

Today’s students, post-college adult learners among them, accrue an assortment of educational, professional and social experiences that are never wholly illustrated by traditional academic success markers. But digital badges — icons representing knowledge and achievements at a more fine-grained level — can supplement grades, transcripts, diplomas or certifications to paint a more comprehensive picture of what a student knows and can do. Here are five ways badges have the potential to influence how people learn:

1. Provide evidence of achievements

Unlike grades, badges can contain data that describe an achievement, the criteria required to meet the achievement and evidence of how those criteria were met. Badges can supplement traditional grades by providing a more nuanced view of a student’s accomplishments as well as documenting the level to which the student mastered a particular skill. Additionally, badges enable students to demonstrate the specific steps they took to progressively build knowledge and experience. Students are able to build on this evidence over time, creating a foundation for lifelong learning.

2.  Motivate students to pursue deeper learning

The idea of using badges to motivate students is, admittedly, a tough sell. This is largely because many people perceive badges as rewards to be collected primarily through video games or social media. However, the Open Badge model introduced by Mozilla has provided a new way to think about how badges can be applied within learning environments. In practice, badges have separated into two emerging archetypes: participation and skill badges. Participatory badges, awarded to those who simply engage in an activity, may motivate lower-performing students who wish to distinguish themselves by participating. Skill badges, on the other hand, are accumulated over time as a way to demonstrate specific knowledge or competencies.

Skill badges, in particular, can encourage deeper learning and become an intrinsic motivator for students, inspiring them to expand their knowledge on a topic. For example, a skills badge could prompt a student to move from an introductory course to a more advanced course.

3. Allow students and instructors to personalize learning paths

Badges are customizable and can be layered into traditional courses, thereby offering a more transitional approach to credentialing as opposed to a complete upending of how learning is recognized. This makes it possible to implement badge programs gradually — such programs act like mortar to fill gaps between different learning opportunities that already exist. Badges also give students the ability to identify and complete learning activities based on their own interests and career trajectories. Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all strategy to impart knowledge, instructors and other educational stakeholders can work with students to select which badges align with their goals, as well as the manner in which each badge should be completed. This type of intensive interaction may be difficult to scale, but badges offer a potential framework to apply this type of personalization broadly.

4. Act as open and shareable credentials

Purdue University has leveraged the Mozilla’s Open Badge infrastructure to create Passport, an application that makes creating, awarding and displaying badges easier. With Passport, and other badge platforms like it, students can publish their badges in an online portfolio to create a more complete and personalized view of their experiences, which may be shared with employers or higher education institutions. Moreover, students maintain control of how and where badges appear, making it possible for them to differentiate themselves based on unique experiences. This type of e-portfolio acts as a mineable deposit of information about an individual’s knowledge and skills that may continue to grow even after he or she graduates and goes to work.

5. Recognize various types of learning for the versatile student

Critical thinking, oral communication, intercultural awareness and teamwork are desirable skills students may develop through coursework, co-curricular and extracurricular activities, or from work experience; however, such skills are difficult to measure with grades. Leadership, for example, may develop differently for a student studying engineering than for one studying political science, and it also may be enhanced by non-class activities — for instance, through leadership opportunities within student organizations or on the job. Documenting this kind of learning is a challenge badges can address.


Badges, unlike transcripts, can capture and show granular details the macroscopic view represented by grades or a transcript can’t. Badges also have the potential to help faculty think through lessons they want their students to learn, the ways in which students learn and the evidence that can be used to validate student success. Badges yield the highest rewards for learners who wish to distinguish themselves in the job market and paint a more accurate picture of their experiences, academic and otherwise.

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